Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Are bearer shares a real thing, and are they legal?

Having just watched The Laundromat - a strange and slightly surreal movie by Steven Soderbergh about tax evasion and money laundering - I now know about something called a "bearer share", which I originally thought was fictional, but which turns out to be all too real.
Bearer shares (and bearer bonds) are financial instruments that show ownership of property, usually a company, but which are entirely unregistered and unrecorded, so that ownership of the property is completely anonymous. As the name suggests, whoever physically holds the piece of paper is assumed to be the owner of the property, along with any bank accounts, dividends, etc, that come with it. I own it, pass it over, now you own it, pass it back, now I own it, etc. It's kind of like a check made out to "cash", but potentially for millions of dollars each.
Sound unlikely? That's what I thought, but apparently it is a real thing. And you can just imagine how well it lends itself to criminal undertakings of all sorts.
And, yes, up until very recently they were in fact legal, at least in some countries. An increasing number of countries have declared them illegal, or at least imposed prohibitive costs or restrictions on them so as to make them impractical or undesirable. It's salutary to consider that several major countries only made them illegal in the last ten or fifteen years, including several states in the USA, Canada, Britain, Luxembourg and Switzerland.
The Marshall Islands was the last country in the world where bearer shares are both legal and can be shared and transferred without any problems or additional costs, but even they caved to international pressure in
2017. You can, however, still legally use "immobilized" bearer shares in places like Bulgaria and in St. Vincent & the Grenadines.

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